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Julianne Malveaux

Mandela's Road to Freedom

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(NNPA) If I close my eyes, I can remember 1984. I am among those running from meeting to meeting working to pass Proposition J, the San Francisco ballot initiative that required the city to divest pension funds from companies doing business in South Africa. The ballot initiative had to get two-thirds of the vote because it dealt with money, and even in progressive San Francisco, some thought getting votes out might be challenging. But a cross section of activists committed to divestment worked our tails off, and prevailed. San Francisco became among the first, and one of the largest, of our nation’s cities to divest public pension funds.

I wish I could distill the energy that came from those rallies and community meetings. I can remember, with just one eye shut, the chants and songs, “South Africa will be free, South Africa will be free, Will be free South Africa.” Students were among those to put themselves on the line for divestment, confronting their college and university leaders about the status of investments. The Free South Africa Movement was not a student movement, not a grass roots movement. It was simply a movement for justice that succeeded because many elements of our nation were involved.

Those of us who favored divestment were following the lead of the African National Congress, who asked allies around the world to make South Africa “ungovernable.” If massive divestment could stop the flow of dollars to South Africa (dollars that could be used to step up military action against innocent civilians), that would place pressure on the South African economy to make choices with dwindling resources. Would fighting to maintain apartheid be one of those? Divestment might make apartheid too expensive to maintain, or so we hoped. The divestment efforts contrasted sharply with the Sullivan Principles, crafted by the late Leon Sullivan, who asked US companies to stay in South Africa but only under certain conditions that dealt with fair pay and working conditions. Those American corporations doing business with South Africa were getting lots of flack for choosing oppressors as their business partners.

The death of Nelson Mandela causes these memories to rush back, memories of activism, of social change, of the conviction that change was coming. The Free South Africa Movement wasn’t a Black movement, or a White one; it was a movement for justice. The Free South Africa Movement, in Washington, D.C. and around the United States, had an uncommonly positive energy, even in the cynical Reagan era.

Nelson Mandela was freed from prison in 2000, went on to be elected president of South African, to dismantle apartheid, and to begin the social and economic transition of South Africa. The rest of the story is history. When people speak of Mandela they will inevitably speak of his spirit of forgiveness, of the fact that even after having been unjustly jailed for 27 years, he was committed to reconciliation in South Africa.

Nelson Mandela projected a humble and forgiving spirit. His appearance of gentility was reassuring to many who expected someone formerly described as a “terrorist” to have little tolerance for the status quo. Still, a spirit of forgiveness is not a spirit that accepts social and economic inequality. President Mandela’s gentle spirit was a forgiving one, but not a forgetful one. As president, he managed to juggle competing constituencies, but he never retreated from his demand that justice be served.

It is not clear when the economic gap in South Africa will be closed, or even narrowed. In many ways, Black South Africans control the political sphere, while the white business establishments control the money, just as is the case in several cities in the U.S. South. People speak of Mandela’s “forgiveness” much as they speak of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “dream.” Can forgiveness be poured from a can of tinned milk to comfort the hungry child in the shanty? Is forgiveness a simple rhetorical term for those South Africans who are moving’ on up, and a broken promise for those who remain down here on the ground?

Nelson Mandela left us much to celebrate, and also much to ponder. Where does the movement for freedom and justice go from here, both in South Africa and in the rest of the world? Which young people have ideas innovative enough to get us past freedom to equality of opportunity? How does one ameliorate an imposed inequality from the decades-old system of apartheid, and is there a desire to do so?

And two decades ago, the idealists sang, marched, and chanted – “South Africa will be free. South Africa will be free. Will be free, South Africa.”

Ache’ Madiba. Thank you for your ferocious forgiveness and for your persistent perusal of justice.

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.

Thanksgiving and other Myths

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(NNPA) Theoretically, Thanksgiving celebrates the breaking of bread between Native Americans and Pilgrims, who might have starved where it not for the generosity of those who first occupied this country. This history is written as if were a moment of friendship and fellowship, notwithstanding the fact that there were Pilgrims who, no sooner than they rose from the turkey-laden dinner table, were plotting ways to take over Native American land. That part of the story is rarely told. Native Americans might have been better off had they shared their meal with snakes (maybe they did) than sharing with the murderous Pilgrims.

Pilgrims and their descendants developed the myth of the shared Thanksgiving. The myth leaves out the unprovoked massacre of tens of thousands on Native Americans because the same Pilgrims who needed food also needed land. They proceeded, systematically, to remove Native people from their own land. Too many history books portray Native American people as savages, and much of the fiction that derives from that era portrays Pilgrims as frightened victims. Native people are portrayed as predators eager to “scalp” the Pilgrims and later, those soldiers who attempted to take Midwest lands. Yet who would not defend their land? And why were people, the original inhabitants of this land, dumped into reservations?

No wonder many Native American people consider Thanksgiving Day a national day of mourning. No wonder many protest the conventional interpretation of Thanksgiving Day. No wonder so many bristle and the lens of history that allows distortion and the celebration of Pilgrim theft.

To add insult to injury, Thanksgiving Day has now devolved into a capitalistic orgy of excessive spending. Commercial establishments open much of the day on the Day of Mourning, and on the next day, described as “Black Friday.” The day is so named because spending on that day is likely to put many companies “in the black.” The Thanksgiving season is less a season of mourning, or even thanksgiving, as an excessive capitalist debacle. People have actually been stomped to death as others stepped over them to race for bargains.

The mythology is similar with Christmas Day, which is supposed to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child. Historians note that the season of celebration is wrong, and that aspects of the story are rife with myth. Sometimes, however, myth simply allows people something to believe in. Most egregious to Christians, however, is the say that Christmas becomes X-Mas, and the day becomes less about the birth of Christ than about the presents people put under a tree. Equally annoying is the Santa Claus myth of a pudgy little man wearing a red hat and sporting long a How many children know more about Santa Claus than the real meaning of the day.

Like the Thanksgiving season, the Christmas season has also become a season of crass capitalism, as consumers flock to department stores for “after Christmas sales.” Profligate spending in November and December represents as much as 20 percent of annual spending, though a typical monthly spend is about 8 percent. No wonder there is an endless promotion for spending during this time period. And no wonder customers respond.

The Kwanzaa holiday, as created by Maulana Karenga has its share of myth. Karenga developed Kwanzaa as a way of celebrating universal values that have special meaning for African American people. One of the principles is celebrated each day ending, on January 1, with the final principle Imani, or faith. Crass spending and gift giving is discouraged. It is true that Karenga “made up” the Kwanzaa holiday as a way of bringing African American people together to reflect on values, with the placement of it after Christmas as an alternative to the mutation of the Christmas holiday, and also a holiday more meditative and secular than Christmas. Myth?

The “first fruit,” or first harvest, is more likely to occur in fall than in winter. Maulana Karenga must be horrified that the capitalists have been able to corrupt Kwanzaa with Kwanzaa cards on sale from commercial companies, using Kwanzaa more as a profit making than a contemplative occasion. In the name of cultural diversity, people walk around saying “Happy Kwanzaa” as if it is the same as “Merry Christmas.”

Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Kwanzaa are examples of the way we use myth either to denigrate or to elevate. The celebration of these holidays also reminds us of the biased lens of history, a lens that needs to be examined.

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.

Walmart Workers Shouldn't Have to Donate Food to Co-workers

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(NNPA) For the past year, an organization called OUR Walmart, has protested, raised questions and asked their employer, one of the nation’s largest companies, to treat them fairly. They have asked for better wages, more full-time hours, and for the opportunity to earn benefits.

Walmart has responded with well-timed publicity moves. They will allow same sex couples health insurance and other benefits, but only if someone is working full time (at least a third of Walmart workers are employed part time). There were headlines about the same-sex marriage benefit, but none about the low wages that many receive, and the hurdles they must clear to get the health care benefit.

The average Walmart worker earns $8.81 an hour; but too many earn the minimum wage ($7.25 cent an hour), even as they work part time. According to Walmart’s CEO. at least half of its workers earn less than $25,000 a year, which isn’t enough to live on in a city with living costs as high as those in Washington, D.C. Yet, Walmart threatened to withdraw from agreements they had with the District of Columbia when the City Council said they would require a $12.50 minimum wage from “big box” stores.

With the District caught between a rock and a hard place – no jobs or low-paying jobs – they blinked and subscribed to the notion that any job is better than no job. The District will end up subsidizing those workers who can’t make it with their Walmart pay. They’ll be the ones lining up for food stamps, subsidized housing, and other income-enhancing programs.

No wonder Walmart wants to help workers during this holiday season. In Canton, Ohio, and in other Walmart stores, managers are asking workers to donate food so that their coworkers may have a pleasant Thanksgiving. If Walmart paid associates enough, workers would not have to transfer food and opportunities to their colleagues. Indeed, since most Walmart stores have a food section, why wouldn’t the company offer their lowest paid workers a gift certificate for $100 or so? Or, why not just pay workers so they don’t need to seek holiday supplements during the holidays. Walmart doesn’t want to pay people what they are worth, just what they can get away with.

Walmart chooses to suppress wages, so they have also made a choice to encourage some workers to provide token assistance for their coworkers who are not well paid. Walmart has put the onus of fair pay on workers helping one another, not the company helping its workers. While many Walmart employees will be concerned enough abut their colleagues to contribute, they must also ask why a food drive is necessary. In asking that question, they might also ask what impact food stamp cuts will have on their colleagues.

There is nothing magic about the $12.50 an hour wage. Some jurisdictions will push their minimum wage to $11 an hour and others will ask for more. Many retail workers say that a $15 an hour wage is the least that they can survive on. A household headed by two part-time Walmart workers qualifies for a number of federal programs. If Walmart paid each of its workers $12.50 an hour, the pay increase would not substantially reduce profit. Indeed, the profit stream might increase if employers are more productive, less likely to seek new jobs, and more likely to exercise pride in their work.

The National Labor Relations Board just announced that it would prosecute Walmart for its illegal treatment – firing or disciplining – 117 striking workers. Many of these actions were initiated in last year’s “Black Friday” when some workers did not want to work Thanksgiving Day or the day after, and others used the occasion to educate the public about their low pay levels.

This year Walmart will open at 6 a.m, two hours earlier than last year. Your dinner will hardly be digested before you head to the store. So while Walmart profess to be concerned about some workers having a good Thanksgiving dinner, they are hardly concerned about when they will have the opportunity to enjoy it, unless they opt for the Thanksgiving dinner Walmart will offer to its “associates” who are forced to work on Thanksgiving.

Enough, Walmart! Pay the people fairly. Pay them wages not giveaways. Stop threatening organizers. Have respect for your workers. Live up to the publicity that you keep churning out. Indeed, divide the publicity budget among your workers who will sing your praises when they are paid a living wage.

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.

Renisha McBridge and Other Black Women Need to be Defended

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(NNPA) All Renisha McBride wanted to do was to go home. She had been in a car accident, her cell phone was dead, and she needed help. She knocked on a couple of doors in the suburban Detroit neighborhood where she was stranded, but it was well after midnight and people weren’t opening their doors. Finally, she found a homeowner in Dearborn Heights who opened his door, but instead of offering the help she so desperately needed, he shot her, saying he thought she was going to break into his home.

He didn’t shoot her at close range; he shot her from a distance. He might have simply shut the door, or he might have shut the door and called 911. Instead he shot 19-year-old Renisha McBride in the face.

On Friday, Theodore P. Wafer, 54, was charged with second-degree murder. He also faces a manslaughter charge.

There are chilling parallels to the Trayvon Martin case. The character assassination of Renisha has begun. According to a toxicology report, her blood alcohol level was 0.22, more than twice the legal limit for driving. Her blood also tested positive for an active ingredient in marijuana.

If Renisha were drunk as Cootie Brown and high as a kite, she did not deserve to be killed. Why didn’t Wafer call 911 and tell them (if he could tell) that there was a drunken woman on his porch? Why did he shoot?

Renisha McBride’s murder bears attention for several reasons. First of all, it reinforces the unfortunate reality that young Black people are at high risk for violence, often because too many shoot first and ask questions later. Secondly, in the cases that are highly publicized, usually it is the massacre of a young man that is at the center of a case. It is important to note that young Black women are too often at risk. And it is important to ask what we plan to do about it.

Marissa Alexander didn’t want to take another beating. Her husband Rico Gray is an admitted abuser whose brutal beatings of his wife were described as “lifethreatening.” She fired a warning shot into the ceiling to warn off her abuser husband. Yet, she was charged with felony use of a firearm and sentenced to 20 years in jail.

The prosecutor in this case, Angela Corey, is the same one who only reluctantly charged George Zimmerman in the massacre of Trayvon Martin, the same prosecutor who assembled a flawed legal team, the same prosecutor who believes in the Stand Your Ground laws. That is, except for Marissa Alexander, who stood her ground against an abusive husband and hurt no one.

Marissa Alexander, the 32-year-old mother of three, has no criminal record. Her conviction has been thrown out because a judge ruled that the prosecution, not the defense, has the burden of proof. (Alexander was asked to prove that she had been beaten). Friends and family have raised her bail, but the judged in her case says he won’t rule on her release until January 15.

She languishes in jail, supposedly, because she remains a threat to her batterer, but even he supports her release. Her continued incarceration is not only meanspirited, but also an illustration about the unevenness of law. George Zimmerman got away with murder for standing his ground. Marissa Alexander is incarcerated because she stood hers.

With domestic violence an epidemic in our country, it seems unfathomable that a woman who wanted to prevent it is charged with a crime. While the civil rights community has surrounded Marissa, I am not aware of women’s organizations or domestic violence organizations that have been similarly supportive. E. Faye Williams of the National Congress of Black Women says that her organization has been active in assisting Marissa, and that’s a good thing. Still, just as the hoodie came to represent Trayvon Martin, and people from around the world, including on the floor of Congress, donned the hoodie in solidarity with Trayvon, there has been no similar support for Marissa Alexander.

Marissa Alexander’s incarceration and the murder of Renisha McBride have something in common. They illustrate the vulnerability of Black women, both in the legal system, and in the public perception of race and gender. Black women are not afforded the privilege of standing their ground against batterers. Black women can be shot at far range because a 54-year-old homeowner was so frightened that he had to shoot.

More than 20 years ago, when now Associate Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas attempted to character assassinate attorney Anita Hill with his wild accusations, a group of Blackwomen stood up in her defense. Using the moniker of “African American Women in Defense of Ourselves,” the group took out ads both in the New York Times and in the Black press supporting Professor Hill. (Disclosure – my mom, my three sisters and I all signed the ad). We defended ourselves then, and we must defend ourselves now. The legal system seems unwilling and unable to do so.

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.

Unmasking White Racism

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(NNPA) In 1896, Lyrics of Lowly Life, a collection of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poetry, was published. Although his poem was specifically focused on African American people, in this 21st Century, it is apropos to many. He recognizes the pain many feel about their inability to be “themselves” and if we fast-forward to today, he addresses the masks they wear because they want to hide from themselves.

The poem reads: “We wear the mask that grins and lies; That hides our cheeks and shades our eyes; This debt we pay to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile; And mouth with myriad subtleties.

“Why should the world be over-wise; In counting all our tears and sighs? Nay, let them only see us, while; We wear the mask. We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries; To thee from tortured souls arise. We sing, but oh the clay is vile; Beneath our feet, and long the mile; But let the world dream otherwise. We wear the mask!”

Whenever I read this poem I am struck by its poignancy. It recognizes the Black folks who tap danced when they’d rather do ballet, who hid their true feelings to get ahead, who are perceived as happy while “the clay is vile.” It doesn’t take a historian to evaluate the masks that people of African descent have been forced to wear in these United States.

In the early 20th Century, you could be lynched for looking a White person in the eye. No matter what your status, you were expected to clear the sidewalk when a White person walked by. You weren’t supposed to scowl or protest, just to wear the mask.

When Senator Barack Obama ran for president of the United States, few chose to acknowledge that he stood on the shoulders of the great civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson. Senator Harry Reid (D-Nevada), now an Obama ally, had the condescending temerity to describe a Harvard-educated Black man as “well-spoken.” Many of us who earned advanced degrees from our nation’s best institutions are stunned when we are described as “articulate.” Some of us choose to wear the mask and silently absorb the nonsense. Others are plain spoken enough to pay the price of stunted career advancement, or a reputation for being “edgy.”

People wear masks daily, sometimes to reveal who they are, and sometimes to hide their true identity. What does this imply, then, about the White people who think that a blackface mask is appropriate? Too many people, including the obscure and minimally talented actress Julianne Hough, decided to don blackface for a Halloween party, excusing herself by claiming she was simply going as a character in the show Orange is the New Black. When criticized, she said she was “sorry,” but she should have said she was ignorantly sorry, because her historical knowledge is most deficient.

Did she go to anybody’s school? Like Hough, those who think that blackface is funny, ignore the demeaning history of blackface caricatures. If these people are wearing a mask, it is a mask that allowed them to hide their racism until they had an excuse to let it show. Then their response is that “it is all in good fun, we meant no harm,” or “ I never meant to offend.” That’s the mask of arrogance. The mask of “I’m White, I’m going to do whatever I choose to do,” a mask that allows them to ignore common decency.

In 2011, Ohio University started a campaign that suggested that student be mindful of the Halloween costumes they chose. The “we’re a culture not a costume” has spread to several universities, but apparently it has not spread widely enough.

Two White men in Florida declared “anything for a laugh” when one, with a “Stand Your Ground” t-shirt (posing as George Zimmerman) seems to be shooting his black faced, hoodie clad White friend who is supposed to be Trayvon Martin. Why is this appropriate or amusing? The arrogance of White people suggests that they can make a joke, and suggests that all people of color are their jokes. The massacre of a young Black man, for them, is not tragedy but an occasion for mockery.

“We wear the mask that grins and lies, that hides our cheeks and shades our eyes.” For some, masks are concealing, for others revealing. Those who choose to mute their reaction to a racist world are adapting. Those who think that blackface is appropriate are attacking. It is tragic that at Halloween, a day conceived for children to have fun, has become an occasion for masks that attack, and for those who make excuses for them.

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.

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